[Campaign Planning 101] Part 4: The Care and Feeding of Players

Today we talk about group dynamics and table management both in and out of character. One of the unwritten responsibilities of a GM is the fact that you are often the de-facto leader of the table, and the task of managing player expectations and experiences falls to you.

Think of yourself as a moderator in that sense, where your goal is to ensure that everyone (including yourself) has a good time with the hours and effort that everyone invests in the game.

That said, let’s look at 2 specific concerns raised so far:

Find out what they want

Different players want different things from a game. This is why I tend to stress the pitch phase of a game with a lot of dialogue with your players. Tell them what kind of game you’d like to run, and ask them if they’re willing to give it a try and what they’d like to do in it.

The more information you have about the style of play they expect, the easier it is to understand what kind of game to run. A lot of times that a player group feels “problematic” stems from the dissonance of expectations between the participants. Maybe one player wants more drama and character acting, while another just wants to cleave orc heads.

Get the group to sit down and buy into the central concept and themes and adhere to them. Write them down if you have to to form a social contract of sorts if you feel the need to.

In this way you get to mitigate the incidences of players who are out to “derail” your game by acting against the established mood of the game.

Help! My Players are kicking the asses of my monsters in combat!

This is a very common sensation for a lot of GMs. There’s something to be said about the gut-level panic at seeing the players wipe out an encounter that was meant to be more difficult.

But fret not, this is merely an illusion.

Players who are rules-oriented are naturally able in terms of wiping the floor with the enemy. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

The best way to overcome this panic is to think of it from the perspective of the world they occupy. That kind of sublime skill in the art of slaughter is bound to pick up a ton of complications that players can’t just shrug off. These can range from job offers to apprentice applicants to rival combatants that seek to test their might against the players.

In addition, if you’re looking to make the players sweat a bit, throw in a mix of challenges. Think of GMing as boxing. Throwing jabs for an entire match isn’t going to get you anywhere, you need to mix it up with a combination of jabs, straights, hooks, and uppercuts aimed towards both the head and the body.

So don’t be afraid to throw players in mix of social and physical challenges. Maybe they get forced into a fancy dress party where they could start a war by sneezing wrong. Or they could be caught in a devious trap somewhere that requires puzzling their way out of it. Engage them on all fronts, and always, always follow up with consequences.

Remember that RPGs are also about playing a role, and that the player characters don’t exist in a vacuum. As they do more impressive things, more people are going to pay attention and soon things will snowball into more challenging scenarios that don’t always play to their strengths.

That said be careful to not get too caught up in this that you ignore their strengths all together. Let them wipe out an enemy force in a single turn, they deserve that. But don’t let up when they find themselves sweating bullets in a social scene, because they deserve that too.

[Campaign Planning 101] Part 2: Themes, Moods and Motif

Now Renegades are the people with their own philosophies
They change the course of history
Everyday people like you and me

– “Renegades of Funk”, by Rage Against The Machine

Welcome back! Today we’re talking about Themes and Moods. These are old tools that I’ve admittedly cribbed from the World of Darkness games, but I’ve found them quite useful so I figured I’d pass it on.


Themes, in the literary sense, is the main idea of a literary work. In the context of RPGs, a theme informs what the campaign is about. The events of the game, the way the conflict is structured and the kind of encounters that the players will find their characters in are all informed by this.

For my Mage: the Awakening game, I’ve decided to focus on two themes:

  • Family is Everything – Being a Mafia inspired setting, the Mage game will have moments where Loyalty is painful, and Betrayal doubly so.
  • Magic is a Drug – The temptation to use Magic is a constant in the lives of a Mage. While some spells are “harmless” there’s always a more compelling motive to use it beyond what is considered moral… But if you’ve seen the truth of the world and know that there are no Angels or Demons watching over you, then what’s stopping you?

Okay, so you’ve identified one or two themes you want for your game, now what? Well, if you’re planning your session, see if there are ways by which you can enforce these themes, either symbolically or directly. Maybe in this game an NPC that the Cabal loves like a brother betrays them in a moment of weakness, or the love of a woman, or some other cause. Or perhaps that “harmless” floozie from the other cabal is finally revealed to be in a constant haze because she’s been feasting on the dreams of those around her, driving them to misery and she just. can’t. stop.

That said, learn to mix it up so that you don’t end up sounding too preachy, or too heavy for your players.


The other half of the equation is the Mood of the game. If the Theme is the cerebral part of it, then the Mood is the emotional tone.

While Mage is often about power struggles, this particular game should be a mix of emotions. I want Mages to forge incredibly intimate ties with one another, to see each other as Family. Much like the Mafia movies, weddings and friendships are key moments that deserve their spot in the sun. That said, when the rain comes, it comes down hard.

The Moods for my Mage Game are:

  • Joie de Vivre – The exultant celebration of life. Mages have seen wonders that so many mortals never will, and it is because they hope to see it again, Mages cling to life with a ferocity that is unmatched.
  • Paranoia – The flipside of this is that Mages also live in a world surrounded by so many threats that it is also possible that a single misstep could cost them dearly. This Paranoia could poison friendships and ruin reputations or worse.


Here’s something that isn’t from the World of Darkness, but is in line with the Themes and Mood of a game. Being a game inspired by the mafia culture, society and conflicts, the game also carries some of its motif.

A Motif is a distinctive feature or element in literary work. In this case, I plan to give the mage game a strong 1920s’s art deco vibe. From fashion, to architecture to automobiles, there will be elements that harken back to the heady days of the Prohibition era. Cabals will meet in renovated speakeasies to conduct their business, wear snazzy pinstripe suits to high society functions and have jazz music playing in the background.

The setting will still be 2016 of course, but these elements will help paint the world and make it much more memorable.

So, what do you guys think of Themes, Moods and Motifs? Is this something you think you can use? Let me know in the comments!

[Campaign Planning 101] Part 1: Introduction & Foundations

A few days ago, while entertaining the idea of running a  Mage: the Awakening 2e game, I asked a local RPG facebook group if they were interested in reading a blog about designing a campaign. The response was very positive, and so I find myself putting my money where my mouth is.

And so here we are.

In this series I’ll try to be as methodical as possible, breaking down my own personal thought processes as I build a Mage: the Awakening Campagin from scratch. Take note that I’ll be focusing mainly on the stuff that will apply regardless of game, so don’t worry about running into too much game-specific jargon. Also this series will deal with custom campaigns, as opposed to running adventure modules.

Anyway, without any further delay, let’s get started.

Establish Your Foundations

The first part about planning any campaign is often already established way ahead of any deep thinking. These will appear very obvious, but it helps to keep them in mind all the same. Let’s go over the basic questions:

What game / system are you running? Often this question is answered way ahead of any kind of planning, unless you’re the type who comes up with a story first and then looks for a matching system later.

What is the setting like? It’s one thing to say that you’re playing D&D, and other to say that you’re playing through the Curse of Strahd Hardback adventure. This is important because while a game’s setting might be huge, the GM cherry picks which parts of the setting to highlight.

What (if any) modifications or houserules are you applying? I’m not so hot on modifications myself, but if you’re applying them to your game, then make sure to note them and inform your players.

What are you looking to get out of the game? If there’s a time to be honest with yourself, this would be it. Understanding your motivations for running a game help a lot in guiding your decisions. If you’re in it for a tactical challenge, then own it.  Likewise if you’re looking to tell a story of intrigue and manipulation, then go whole hog into it as well.

Who are you running it for? A game consists of you, and your player’s inputs. Without them, you’re pretty much left putting together a game for some strange unknown future. The reason why I feel that it’s important to know your players is that you can tailor the game to their interests while still being true to your enjoyment as defined in the prior question.

Now that we’ve gone through that exercise, let me go ahead an answer my own questions:

What game am I running? Mage: the Awakening, 2nd Edition

What is the setting like? A world of darkness take on Chicago, the Windy City. A place whose history of organized crime and corruption has been glorified to an ideal. The times have changed, but the hearts of those who live there haven’t.

Any modifications or houserules? Nope, running this one pure vanilla, although I’ll be creating a new set of Mage NPCS as opposed to the ones in the World of Darkness: Chicago book.

What am I looking to get out of the game? A memorable campaign that draws parallels between organized crime with magic. Both are dangerous activities, conducted by clandestine operatives with arcane organizations and severe loyalties who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to get a leg up in their world.

Who are you running it for? My home group of players are a wide spread of personalities who have a penchant for clever (if ruthless) solutions of both the social and physical nature. Given the setting, I’m hoping to give them plenty of opportunities to pull off great “Gotcha!” moments and occasionally indulge in the darker side of their Obsessions… all while fearing for their lives.

Now that we’ve gotten the easy stuff out of the way, our next entry will deal with Themes and Moods in your campaign, and how to use them.

Introducing a new player to RPGs: Focus on the Fun, not the Details

Roleplaying games is an incredibly rewarding hobby, but there’s always a bit of difficulty when it comes to introducing new players into the hobby.

Part of this difficulty lies with the fact that it’s so tempting to overload someone with expectations and pressures that take the fun out of everything. Players joined the game hoping to have fun, but three culprits manage to ruin their fun even before they’ve had a chance to really appreciate the hobby::

Optimized Character Creation

New players don’t know the system, and will make sub-optimal characters as a natural consequence. This is not a bad thing. The objective of running a game for new players is to focus on the fun, rather than stressing them out about making the right choices for a character.

While some systems will need you to call out a few must-haves, make sure to not go overboard and take away their chance to enjoy character creation.

Optimized Combat

Combat is another place where it becomes very tempting to step in and “guide” them through. GMs and veteran players alike are guilty of doing this. Combat for new players is a chance for them to shine and get to know the basics. It’s not about them making perfect strategic choices right off the bat. If they’re not quite used to it yet, bring up where they could improve after the fight is over rather than trying to remote-control them.

One-Solution Situations

GMs are the culprits here. Given that these players are new to the game, it’s unreasonable to give them situations which have only one solution.

Come to think of it, it’s unreasonable to provide that situation to any player, regardless of experience level.

Ultimately it all boils down to permissiveness. Think back to the early days of your rpg life. The fun comes from being able to play a role, do fun things, and achieve the impossible. Don’t make it hard for players to discover that experience. Let them understand the appeal first. Once they understand the appeal and are hooked, then you can start introducing the various challenges and obstacles that will make play even more rewarding.

Dungeons & Dissonance, or How Differences In Expectations Crash Games

Not everyone thinks alike.

It’s a simple truth, but one that leads to all sorts of conflict. I’ve been asked by some of the local gamers to discuss the games that I’ve run and crashed and burned horribly.

Like any GM, I’m not immune to running games that fail to take off. But the key aspect to these situations is often the failure of the group to set proper expectations. But what kind of contrasting expectations cause games to fail?

Expectations in Combat

Some people love combat, other people don’t. And even if everyone is on the same page about the frequency (or presence of) combat, how they go about it is another point of contention.

Some players prefer to take on an omnisicent stance, reducing the battle to a tactical puzzle, where all player characters have absolute combat awareness. Others prefer to take actions in battle that are more immediate to their character’s situation. Both are valid, but they can (and often do) oppose each other on the table.

Tactical players get frustrated at the illogical nature of the ones that react in the context of a character, while those who prefer the latter feel that tactical combat robs the situation of the emotional resonance of the situation.

These are things that would be nice to get a bead on early on as combat is a high stakes situation, and a lot of players value the lives of their characters. Depending on how much players trust each other, there should be a tolerance for how everyone plays or else you run the risk of emotions running high and general resentment over what other players feel are “stupid” choices made in combat.

Expectations of Interaction

Roleplaying games thrive on interacting with NPCs, and another potential sore point in these games is when players don’t agree on how their characters should interact with each other and with the NPCs. We’ve all been there, in a game where we were going in with the expectation of negotiating with someone when one of the party decides to behad the king instead.

It’s an extreme example to be sure, but it serves to illustrate a point that the players should all be on the same page as well when it comes to interaction. There’s a difference to being a force of change and prime motivator in a game to being that d-bag who decides to cause a mess and leave everyone else to pick up after him.

Expectations of Objectives

This is perhaps another common flashpoint in games. Players (and the GM) should have a clear idea of the objective of the game. If the GM is gunning for politics, they should say so up front. If they’re looking for lots of tactical combat, there should be that as well.

Groups should negotiate with each other, find the happy medium where everyone gets what they want. Players and GMs should not resort to passive-aggressive one upsmanship in-game to resolve what is ultimately an out-of-game issue.

Ultimately, talking it out with the group before every game is important to iron out the various differences in playing style and preferences that cause games to crash.

I’ve lived through a few of these, some of which had ugly real life consequences due to the emotions involved, so it’s become very important to me to make sure that I make everyone’s expectations clear from the get go, and periodically check with people if the game is going in a direction that they like.

[Playing With X, Part 3] Facemen

Happy Monday everyone, welcome back to part 3 of the Playing with X series where we tackle the different kinds of players you might run into in a game and how to best get along with them from a Player’s point of view.


Facemen are the talkers of the team. They’re witty players who bring a different kind of specialty to the game that is separate from their character’s attributes and skills: the gift of gab. They naturally dominate table-side conversation, and naturally become the game’s spokespersons, tackling social situations without fear.


Facemen enjoy interaction. While they might not necessarily be the smartest in the team, they thrive on being able to engage in Roleplay through negotiation, conversation and fast talking. They prefer games where they get to engage with NPCs, learning from them or outmaneuvering them or making allies as they go. It’s not necessarily the objective, as much as the experience of interaction that makes a game “fun” for them.

How to Spot a Faceman

You don’t really spot a faceman as much as you hear them. They’re often the ones that engage in conversation first with NPCs, the ones who prefer to negotiate before drawing their weapons. Their characters can run the gamut from well-optimized killing machines, to scattershot builds with points everywhere, but none of these mechanics matter to a faceman in his element.

How to Get Along

For those following the series, the advice might start feeling repetitive. Facemen enjoy talking, so let them indulge in a bit of it now and then. Don’t just stab the opponent in mid-dialogue if the Faceman is obviously raring to throw a sizzling comeback line. Likewise, take the time to talk to them in-character, giving his character a chance to interact with your own outside of barking commands in a fight. Characters aren’t often psychic, and part of the fun from them is the banter between the two.

Facemen are easy to get along with. It doesn’t take much for them to enjoy a game as long as they get to play out their character. By engaging them in-character you give them (and yourself) a chance to develop your characters further and establish a rapport that makes for a much more entertaining game.

[Playing With X, Part 2] Tacticians

Hello everyone, today we’re talking about Tacticians, what they’re like, how to spot one, and of course, how to get along best with their play style.


Tacticians in my book are the players who resort to planning and tactics to succeed in a game. They’re consummate planners, and have a tendency to step back from a situation in order to analyze it without any emotions getting in the way.

This manifests most obviously in combat, but I’ve seen Tacticians take to social situations with the same kind of focus, drawing up social interaction diagrams in order to most effectively understand where everyone is in a given community.


Tacticians get the most fun out of figuring out a situation and coming up with an inspired solution to get the most desirable outcome. The kind of challenge they enjoy is one where they get to engage the opponent and dominate them not necessarily with brute force, but with a combination of factors that leaved the opposition thoroughly defeated in the ways that matter. Their methods may range from honorable to machiavellian, but their objective is always the same: complete and utter victory.

How to Spot a Tactician

Tacticians tend to expose themselves in a game when the team is given an opportunity to plan. They’re the ones who are the first to call the group together, and discuss the situation. This sometimes makes them suited towards leadership status in a group, but is not always the case. Tacticians will go over a plan with excruciating detail, hashing out backup plans to cover for any imagined possibilities. Of course, depending on their personality, this can be either a welcome thing, or an annoyance. Groups composed of more spontaneous players might chafe at the Tactician’s insistence on sticking to a plan.

How to get Along

Tacticians appreciate feedback and discussion. When they’re in brainstorming mode, jump in an engage them, toss in a scenario or two where your character can help out. They will appreciate the idea of having other points of view to analyze a situation and will be more willing to relax their control if they can see that their teammates are perfectly able to make sound tactial decisions when left alone.

As a Tactician-type of player myself, I find that I fixate on running a scenario in my head and plan for as many eventualities as possible. I’ve learned to work with my fellow players, delegating responsibility to them according to what they do best. In my eyes, the team wins when we get everything we want and leave little to nothing for our opponents to pick over when we’re gone.

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